According to MLB Trade Rumors' invaluable and infinitely entertaining ranking (with predictions, of both team and amount) of the 50 top MLB free agents, nine current free agents are about to sign a contract that will pay them an average of $20 million a season or more. They are:
• Yoenis Cespedes
• Johnny Cueto
• Chris Davis
• Alex Gordon
• Zack Greinke
• Jason Heyward
• David Price
• Justin Upton
• Jordan Zimmermann
Now, there is more money in Major League Baseball right now than any time in the history of the sport, and when there's that much money, all told, I'd rather it go to the players than in the owners' pockets. I have no problem with players making as much money as they possibly can, and you shouldn't either. Baseball's free agency rules make it so most top-tier players only have the opportunity for one, maybe two, legitimate big paydays, so good for these guys for getting whatever cash they can. And it's also worth noting that not all of those projected $20 million contracts are treated equally: Heyward is projected to get an average of $1 million a year less than Gordon, but his contract is for 10 years, where Gordon's is only five. It's all relative.
But still: $20 million is a lot of money. Twenty million bucks puts you on the list of the 100 highest-paid athletes on the planet. It also marks you as more than one-sixth of more than half of Major League teams' total payroll. And it marks you -- almost certainly -- as being a drain on your team and its payroll.
That is the dirty secret of every free-agent season: Almost every long-term deal that will be signed will be bad. In FanGraphs' rankings over the summer of the worst five contracts, all five were massive free agency "victories" for the team that signed them, all within in the past three years. These deals are terrible business. I know this is exciting. I know we can't wait to talk about them all. I know some long-term deals even work out (though the only one immediately coming to mind is Matt Holliday). There are 34 players -- not counting the free agents signing new deals -- who will be making $20 million or more in 2016. The majority of them will absolutely not be worth it.
So let's take a look at those 34 players and see which ones are a drain on their 2016 teams, and which ones are a boon. (All salaries -- cap hits, actually -- are from Spotrac.) Remember, we are talking only about 2016 here; most of these contracts still have more years to go after this one, making it even worse.
• Clayton Kershaw ($34.6 million)
• Felix Hernandez ($25.9 million)
• Jon Lester ($25 million)
• Cole Hamels ($23.5 million)
• Max Scherzer ($22.1 million)
• Adrian Gonzalez ($21.9 million)
• Buster Posey ($20.8 million)
• Joey Votto ($20 million)
Kershaw is the best-paid player in baseball; he's worth every penny and probably a lot more. Some of these contracts are going to get worse as they continue along -- Gonzalez will make $21.5 million in 2018, and Lester could make $25 million in 2021 -- but for 2016, this is roughly market value, or below it.
Up in the air
• Miguel Cabrera ($28 million)
• Robinson Cano ($24 million)
• Prince Fielder ($24 million)
• Mark Teixeira ($23.1 million)
• Masahiro Tanaka ($22 million)
• James Shields ($21 million)
• Alex Rodriguez ($20 million)
• Troy Tulowitzki ($20 million)
I'm probably being nice on all those Yankees, most of whom are unlikely to stay as healthy next year as they were this year (and they weren't all that healthy this year). Cano's deal will be a nightmare in six years -- he is going to make $24 million in 2023, when he's 41 years old -- but he could earn that $24 million back in 2016. These could go either way.
• Justin Verlander ($28 million)
• Albert Pujols ($25 million)
• CC Sabathia ($25 million)
• Ryan Howard ($25 million)
• Joe Mauer ($23 million)
• Hanley Ramirez ($22.8 million)
• Jose Reyes ($22 million)
• Matt Kemp ($21.75 million)
• Carl Crawford ($21.6 million)
• Jayson Werth ($21.6 million)
• Jacoby Ellsbury ($21.1 million)
• Matt Cain ($20.8 million)
• C.J. Wilson ($20.5 million)
• Jered Weaver ($20.2 million)
• Rick Porcello ($20.1 million)
• David Wright ($20 million)
• Ryan Braun ($20 million)
• Shin-Soo Choo ($20 million)
And then here are the rest of them. I might be a little too harsh on Ellsbury, Wright and Braun, but the rest are, across the board, nightmare contracts. (Reminder: Pujols, who has yet to put up an OPS+ in Anaheim within single-digit points of his worst season in St. Louis, will make $30 million in 2021.) That Reyes one looks particularly awful now. And forget just 2016. Verlander will get paid through 2020, as will Choo; Ramirez, Kemp and Porcello through 2019; Mauer through 2018. All of these deals were celebrated as coups for the teams who signed them when they went down. (Well, maybe not Howard's.) And now they're all albatrosses.
Some of the players who sign for $20 million or more will be worth it in 2016, and some even in 2017. And who knows? Maybe they'll sustain their value for a half-decade to come. But they'll be bucking history if they do. So much of baseball analysis and analytics in the past few years has been focused on maximizing the efficiency of one's payroll dollar, down to the most granular level. If recent history has taught us anything, it's that little is less inefficient than buying free agents on the open market. Every team about to sign these guys thinks this time it'll be different, that they're the ones making the wise long-term move. Every team always thinks that. Next thing you know, you're staring at the calendar, waiting for it to turn, so you can walk away from that free-agent mistake and move on with your life. In all transactions, buyer beware. But in these transactions, buyer really, really beware.